Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Four of the Apocalypse (1975)

Here's a strange little spaghetti western that could be considered revisionist if anyone had bothered to see it. Lucio Fulci (Zombi 2, The Beyond, etc) has crafted a somber, elegiac, and often moving story about four strangers who must band together to survive the rugged terrain that is the American West. Of course, this being a Fulci picture there's no shortage of blood, grue, being skinned alive, cannibalism, and perhaps some violence of a carnal nature.

The titular "four" meet in a jail cell in the small town of Salt Flats, Utah. The hero of the story, Stubby Preston, travels there to win some money playing cards. His reputation preceeds him, however, and the sheriff throws him in jail after burning his five decks of marked cards. The three other characters await Stubby in the jail cell. There's Bunny, the pregnant whore with a heart of gold. We've got Clem (Michael Pollard of Bonnie & Clyde, also Tango & Cash) as the wild eyed drunk. And finally, there's the lone black man in the cast named Bud. Unfortunately, not much progress had been made in Italian cinema by this point in time so Bud was portrayed as a bit of a simpleton who sees dead people. Not a ton of nuance to this particular character.

Anyway, little do they know that Salt Flats is looked upon as a town of sinners by a group of vigilantes that wear white sashes over their heads. While they sit in jail, the town is massacred as the sheriff sits idly by shoveling his stew into his mouth. We got a pretty decent scene of carnage here, gamblers and drunks alike gunned down, whore runners hung from the neck until they be dead, and so on. I guess the sheriff has a heart since he eventually lets the four out the back, gives them a horse and carriage and shoos them off across the desert.

This picture is basically one damned episode after the other. Stubby and Clem nearly come to blows when Clem drinks Stub's toilet water thinking it was alcohol. When Bunny is revealed to be pregnant, Stubby isn't too pleased..."li'l bitch thinks she's gonna hold us back?" They encounter a group of bible toters of the "joyful church of the living christ" who, it turns out, carry no weapons but the ever loving "word of god." We can figure out what happens to them easily enough. There's an encounter with the villainous Chaco, a Charles Manson type figure, that doesn't end too well. Chaco comes and goes, haunting the picture , committing various atrocities here and there. In one scene, he gets everyone high on peyote, ties them up, rapes poor Bunny, shoots Clem in the leg, and then leaves them to bake in the sun. So, yeah, he's not always an endearing character.

This is a weird, almost aimless, movie that somehow manages to be compelling. The appearance of Chaco actually manages to be funny. The group is sitting on a river bed, celebrating Bunny's birthday, when a couple of shots ring out. Chaco struts into their midst, with his rifle down low, the hilt by his crotch and the barrel suddenly standing straight up. He rubs Stubby's face with it and asks to join the group saying "wherever you go, you'll always have meat". Did I say funny? I think I meant gay. Turns out Chaco is an expert hunter. He joins them on their quest (to what ends, I'm still not sure), shooting fowl along the way while Bud (the lone black man, remember) runs off into the fields to retrieve them (progress, people, progress). All this scored to some trippy folk shit by some band called The Benjamin Franklin Group. We got songs like "movin on", "bunny", "stubby", etc....some real Bob Dylan or Simon & Garfunkel type shit. Only shitty. So, I guess that's one issue with the picture. The music (at least the songs) are all wrong.

Still, we got some very effective scenes like the one where Chaco skins the bounty hunter alive and then sticks his deputy badge in the poor guy's bare chest. That's also the scene where the "four of the apocalypse" maybe realize that this Chaco guy isn't right for their little group. Then there's the rape, the being left for dead, etc that really cements it. Anyway, there's a great scene that delves into horror when the four come upon a ghost town where it never stops raining. They dry themselves by the fire, naked, while Bud hits up the local cemetery to make some new friends. They try eating some mice, Clem succumbs to his leg wound, and then Bud brings in some pretty sweet looking meat all of a sudden that I wouldn't even think to question until looking in an adjacent home and finding Clem with a big hole in his left ass cheek. As you can imagine, the four of the apocalypse is very soon down to two. Of the apocalypse.

I think what I appreciated most was the lack of a true hero in this thing. Not one of these four carries a gun. When one character uses one in a climactic moment it's clear he's got no idea what he's doing. Hell, the guy uses both hands, so the idea clearly was not to make him (Let's face it, it's Stubby, everyone else is probably dead or talking to the dead or giving birth somewhere) into an iconic character like Django or Eastwood. This is about 4 regular stereotypes like you or me and two other people trying to traverse some barren desert type scenery and not get killed in the process.

There's a scene in a snowbound mountain town that could be from an entirely different movie. Stubby brings Bunny here to give birth to her child. Only problem, it's a town full of rugged men, no women, and a drunk doctor. Fuck man, it's incredibly moving to see these salty old dogs warm to the idea of a child being born into their midst. Oh, sure, at first they act all tough and shit saying things like "this is man's country!" and "hell, if we want a whore we'll just head on down to Salt Flats or wherever and buy us one". Then, in a masterfully shot scene, we see the look on their faces as the sound of a baby crying can be heard from inside the manger or stock house or wherever it was and the camera pans back. Later, the men line up to see the baby, present it with donations, name the thing Lucky, and try to "figure out which one of us he looks like the most."

So, what we have here is something other than a traditionally satisfying western. Oh, sure, there's a scene tacked on where Stubby gets his revenge but the picture had really ended, for me, before that final moment where Stubby stands over a pathetic Chaco uttering lame poker metaphors like "you overplayed your hand" or "you never split a pair of tens" or, well, maybe that's black jack. Anyway, we don't need to see this revenge because the picture up until this point was more about things like surviving. Revenge is nice enough and all, but not very realistic for this Stubby guy. I mean, it's just not believable that he could waltz in on Chaco's camp aiming his pistol with two hands and take out Chaco and his two compadres. There's no way Stubby is a match for a sleeping Chaco, let alone one who's groggily waking up. And I guess let's just ignore the luck of him blindly stumbling upon his camp. Or, if it wasn't so "blindly", I guess I want to know when he become a capable tracker?

Despite my issues with that final scene this is still a pretty good one. Sorry if I spoiled too much of it. We got a well shot picture here with lots of blood, some humor, some beauty, some bizarreness, some decent dubbing, some restored gore footage, and a nice little moment where four (carriage riders) of the apocalypse place bets on a beetle race in a jail cell. The only scene in the picture involving living creatures (excepting horses and a person or two) not being gunned down by Chaco. He shoots birds, drunks, rabbits, bible toters, children, a dead fish, dogs, etc. Something for everyone.

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